Glamorous and sensual, screen legend Rekha is a force to be reckoned with in Bollywood circles. She has been compared to Hollywood’s Greta Garbo and is possibly one of India’s most accomplished actresses. Known by her stage name, Rekha is famous for her talent and tenacity, and perhaps even more, infamous for her alleged off-screen liaison with Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan. However her roots lie in the South. She is the daughter of South Indian screen legend, Tamil actor Gemini Ganesan and Telegu actress Pushpavalli.
She was born Bhanurekha Ganesan in Madras (Chennai) on 10 October 1954. Her parents never married, and in fact her father did not recognize her at all -though many years later in her attempts to get ahead in the industry, her true identity was revealed. Her father was married to veteran Tamil actress Savitri and she has seven step sisters and a brother. Her mother brought the young Rekha to Mumbai where she began working as a child actress. Rekha started her career in 1966 in the Telugu movie Rangula Ratnam. It is believed she began acting because of her family’s poor financial position – and not because of any desire to follow in her father’s footsteps.
Rekha’s debut as a lead actress happened with the Hindi movie Sawan Bhadon in 1970. However, despite the critical acclaim of many of her early films, she was often overlooked because of her unconventional looks. In fact in an interview with Filmfare in the early 1980’s she referred to the fact that early on in her career she was only offered roles that other actresses had refused. “I've never got meaty roles or great songs. Shabana and Smita got the plum roles. Hemaji (Malini) got the best commercial films and songs. I just did whatever I got to the best of my abilities”. In an interview with the Telegraph in 2008 she says “I was called the ‘Ugly Duckling’ of Hindi films because of my dark complexion and South Indian features. I used to feel deeply hurt when people compared me with the leading heroines of the time and said I was no match for them.” It was much later in her career, after a dramatic makeover that the actress started being referred to as a sex symbol in the Indian media, a title she now can probably still monopolise.
In 1970 Rekha starred in two films - the Telugu Amma Kosam and the Hindi film Sawan Bhadon, a hit which immediately boosted her into stardom. Despite following this with a number of commercially successful films at the time, including Raampur Ka Lakshman and Kahani Kismat Ki, Rekha struggled to get critical acclaim. She still was the odd one out – the south Indian actress who really could not be compared to her north Indian counterparts. Thus began what must surely be one of the most transformational makeovers in the Indian film industry. In an effort to loose weight and change her looks, the actress accomplished the ultimate ugly duckling to beautiful swan metamorphosis.
With a number of hit movies in the early 70’s - Namak Haram opposite Rajesh Khanna, Dharma opposite Navin Nischol, Kahani Kismet Ki opposite Dharmendra, and Pran Jaaye Par Vachan Na Jaaye opposite Sunil Dutt she landed a more substantial role for the first time through director Dulal Guha's Do Anjaane in 1976. This marked the beginning of her onscreen partnership with Amitabh Bachchan. Other roles opposite Bachchan include Suhaag, Muqqadar Ka Sikander, Mr.Natwarlal, Khoon Pasina, Ram Balram, and of course Silsila
She also partnered with actor Jeetendra and director T. Rama Rao in films like Judaai, Maang Bharo Sajna and Ek Hi Bhool. Her efforts were recognized in more serious films like director Saawan Kumar's Saajan Ki Saheli with Vinod Mehra and director Ramesh Talwar's Basera with Shashi Kapoor.
A significant turning point in Rekha’s career came in 1978, and her portrayal of a rape victim in the movie Ghar, a movie in which she starred with Vinodh Mehra and received her first nomination for Best Actress at the Filmfare Awards. In the same year Muqaddar Ka Sikander was declared the hit movie of that year, and went on to become one of the biggest hits of the decade. Rekha's performance as a courtesan earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Filmfare awards. It was her alleged offscreen relationship with Bachchan that attracted the chunk of attention though. Their screen collaboration culminated in 1981, when they starred, together with Bachchan’s wife Jaya Bhaduri in Yash Chopra's Silsila. In 1981 Rekha also starred in Umrao Jaan, a film adaptation of the Urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada, written by Mirza Hadi Ruswa. Rekha played the title role of a courtesan and poet from 19th century Lucknow.
By the early 1980’s Rekha had started working in various non-commercial movies with independent directors, mostly under Shashi Kapoor's production. This was a parallel cinema, an Indian New Wave movement known for its more serious content and neo-realism. Her venture into this particular genre began with with Umrao Jaan, and was followed by other films like Shyam Benegal's award-winning drama, Kalyug (1981), Govind Nihalani's Vijeta (1982), Girish Karnad's Utsav (1984) and Gulzar's Ijaazat (1987), among others. She was among the few actresses of the time who were playing lead roles in heroine-oriented films like Khoon Bhari Maang in 1988. Rekha won her second Filmfare Award for her performance in the film and went on to describe the movie as "the first and only film I concentrated and understood all throughout."
The 1990s saw a definite drop in popularity and work. Despite doing some very challenging roles, many of her appearances were commercially and critically unsuccessful. Some of her more notable films during the decade include Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love and Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi (1996). Another controversial film at that time came in the form of Aastha: In the Prison of Spring (1997), where Basu Bhattacharya, making the last film of his career, cast her as a housewife who moonlights as a prostitute. In the 2000s, Rekha appeared in relatively few movies. In 2001 she joined the cast of Rajkumar Santoshi's feminist drama Lajja. She also starred in Rakesh Roshan's science-fiction film Koi... Mil Gaya, where she was cast as Sonia Mehra, a single mother to a developmentally disabled young man, played by Hrithik Roshan. The movie was a financial and critical success and won the Filmfare Award for Best Movie. Rekha received yet another Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Filmfare awards. In 2006, she reprised the role of Sonia Mehra in Krrish, Rakesh Roshan's sequel to Koi... Mil Gaya.
As an accomplished artiste, Rekha has acted in over 180 movies and gained international acclaim. Her personal life however has always been a closely guarded secret. In fact in the late 1990’s she went to court to stop the sales of the book Eureka, an unauthorized biography penned by the controversial Mohan Deep. Of course there has been the much publicised alleged relationship with Amitabh Bachchan that was never admitted to or denied by either party. In 1990 Rekha married Delhi-based industrialist Mukesh Aggarwal. However, merely a year later - while she was in the United States - he committed suicide. It’s believed he had made several previous attempts prior to their marriage. Rekha was also rumoured to have been married to actor Vinod Mehra in 1973, but in a 2004 television interview with Simi Garewal she denied having married Mehra referring to him as a "well-wisher".
With a career spanning over 40 years, Rekha has, for the most part, gained a reputation for the portrayal of strong feminist characters. Outside of mainstream commercial cinema, she has appeared in numerous arthouse or parallal films. Overcoming her initial language barriers, (Rekha had to learn to speak Hindi – and later even Urdu for the movie Umrao Jaan), she has won three Filmfare Awards, two for Best Actress and one for Best Supporting Actress, for her roles in Khubsoorat (1980), Khoon Bhari Maang (1988) and Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi (1996). Her portrayal of a classical courtesan in Umrao Jaan (1981) won her the National Film Award for Best Actress. In 2010, Rekha was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award given by the Government of India. Though her career has gone through various periods of decline, but has managed to constantly reinvent herself – and it is surely this ability that must be credited for her sustained presence on Bollywood screens.